‘F*** you, I won’t do what you tell me’: How political protest stormed the pop charts

Ever since Rage Against the Machine made it to the top slot in 2009, there’s been a steady drip of political protest campaigns edging into the UK singles chart. Will Pritchard speaks to Stewart Lee and more about whether a No 1 can change the world

Tuesday 19 January 2021 06:33 GMT
Music fans have increasingly turned to the singles chart as a means of protesting against the UK government
Music fans have increasingly turned to the singles chart as a means of protesting against the UK government

As far as song lyrics go, “Boris Johnson is a f****** c***” is not exactly what you’d call chart-friendly. But that didn’t stop comedy punk group The Kunts getting their politically charged track (called, naturally, “Boris Johnson is a F****** C***”) to No 5 in the official Top 20 at Christmas. Just a few weeks later, as the UK officially left the EU, comedian Stewart Lee and Asian Dub Foundation were pushing a comical anti-Brexit ode featuring lyrics from a 1,000-year-old Anglo Saxon poem into the download charts.

In recent years, campaigners and rabble-rousers have increasingly taken aim at the upper ranks of the pop charts in a bid to adopt them as a form of political billboard. In the same spirit of the Sex Pistols’ releasing “God Save the Queen” in the week of the 1977 Silver Jubilee, contemporary efforts have taken on everything from Boris to Brexit to the Hillsborough tragedy and war in foreign lands. The tradition of protest music long outdates chart history, if not the history of recorded music itself – but there’s something about the symbolism of the charts that still attracts campaigners wanting to cause a stir.

“I suppose it’s sort of subversive and fun,” says Lee. “I forget who it was that said the purpose of comedy was to afflict the comforted and comfort the afflicted, but I think a lot of people have got some comfort from seeing these things get through. Often, the more stupid they are, the more delightful it is that they’ve managed to do it.”

These singles vary from the downright deranged to the seriously serious. The Great Chart Reclamation began around February 2007, when activist group Stop the War Coalition released a version of Edwin Starr’s “War” credited to a group called Ugly Rumours – the name of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s university rock band. The campaign coincided with the fourth anniversary of the Iraq War and kicked off at a march in London, with attendees encouraged to purchase the song on their mobile phones.

“War” hit No 6 in the midweeks and eventually charted at No 21. The song’s producer, Ben Grey, summed up the thinking behind the song at the time: “We wanted to try and reach the people who might be more into watching The X Factor than listening to politics. Marches and rallies can be dismissed and ignored but a hit record will mean everyone is talking about this issue.” The stunt didn’t stop the war (admittedly quite a big ask), but it proved at least that this tactic could work on some basic level.

Stop the War Coalition demonstrators protest in Parliament Square in 2007

Stop the War’s stunt had planted a seed. A year later, in 2008, Martin Lewis of Money Saving Expert led a campaign protesting unlawful bank charges with a version of The Clash’s “I Fought the Law” retitled as “I Fought the Lloyds”. While it didn’t break any new ground in the charts (reaching No 25), it was clear that these campaigns were becoming more savvy: the song was released at the beginning of January, typically a quiet time for new music, and an email campaign had notched up tens of thousands of pre-sale downloads in advance of the release date. Lewis has since claimed that it was only a change in how the charts are calculated (counting the number of downloads rather than the number of payments received) that prevented the song from hitting the top spot. Such technical arguments have become a familiar refrain among chart raiders.

One man who knows more than most about launching political songs to the top of the charts is Jon Morter. A DJ from Essex, Morter first made headlines in 2009 with his successful effort to deliver US rap-rock band Rage Against the Machine their first Christmas No 1 – and keep that year’s X Factor winner, Joe McElderry, from swiping the slot. He’d tried the same feat a year before with Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” (a popular internet meme at the time), but ultimately it was the defiant message of RATM’s “Killing In The Name” and Morter’s ability to mobilise a Facebook community of thousands that broke Simon Cowell’s iron grip on consecutive Christmas blockbusters.

Since then, Morter says his inbox has been stuffed with requests not only from major labels and promotion agencies intrigued by his methods, but by other social and political campaigners too. He’s assisted on digital campaigns for everyone from The Rolling Stones to The Justice Collective (raising funds for Hillsborough charities). In fact, if there’s a campaign to get a protest song into the charts, there’s a good chance Jon Morter has been involved at some point.

Rage Against the Machine, here at Lollapalooza in 2008, would reach No 1 with their defiant single ‘Killing in the Name’

That includes the rather macabre effort to take “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” to No 1 when Margaret Thatcher died in 2013. Six years after it was first created, a Facebook group called “Make ding dong the witch is dead No 1 the week Thatcher dies” suddenly sprung to life. The anonymous woman, who had first set it up in 2007, was floundering at the requests and eventually got in touch with Morter to help out. “The woman that was running [the page] found me and said, ‘What the hell do I do? I don’t know what to do, we've got literally thousands that have joined and want to do it. What do you suggest?” remembers Morter. He offered his assistance, acting under a pseudonym due to the divisive nature of the campaign. The song reached No 2 in the charts, but Morter remains convinced that, based on the iTunes sales data, it had shifted enough units to go to No 1. Having held out at the top of the download chart all week, the song slipped to second place at the last moment. Says Morter: “I think there was a little bit of shenanigans going on there.”  

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The confluence of social media and digital music services have made it easier than ever to turn the charts into a political placard, and the success of efforts like the Thatcher campaign and Morter’s Rage Against the Machine bid have proven the tactic’s viability. These targeted campaigns have cropped up with increasing frequency in recent years. In the run-up to the 2017 general election, ska outfit Captain SKA released a new version of their song “Liar Liar”, functionally retitled “Liar Liar GE2017”. The original had been penned in 2010 about the David Cameron-led coalition but this new take trained its aim on Theresa May. Accompanied by a comic music video, it charted at No 4, made headlines in The New York Times, and even ruffled the usually austere then-prime minister herself, with May telling BBC Radio’s Newsbeat that she was “not very happy about it”.

A couple of years later, in December 2019, a bid to crown Jarvis Cocker’s 2006 song “Running The World” (with its refrain of “c**** are still running the world”) followed the Conservatives’ general election victory. A month after that, in January 2020, “Come Out Ye Black And Tans” by Irish rebel group The Wolfe Tones spiked in the download charts. The campaign was a response to plans by the Irish government to commemorate the centenary of the controversial Royal Irish Constabulary, the force notorious for police brutality and extrajudicial killings. Inspired by this Irish effort, the Welsh independence campaigners at YesCymru pushed a rendition of the folk song “Yma O Hyd” (meaning “still here”) by former Plaid Cymru president Dafydd Iwan into the UK iTunes charts too.

Most of these campaigns donate their proceeds to charity, but the aim for many of these chart hijacks is simply about showing solidarity. Morter most recently contributed to two new chart bids: The Kunts’ aforementioned Boris Johnson single, spurred on by the prime minister’s U-turn over Christmas restrictions, and the anti-Brexit collaboration between Asian Dub Foundation and Stewart Lee, which was called “Comin’ Over Here”. The Kunts’ chart success surprised even Morter, while the Asian Dub Foundation track topped the UK single sales chart in the first week of the year (it peaked at 65 in the official charts, which includes streams).

‘Comin’ over here’: Stewart Lee’s anti-xenophobic routine has been used as part of a recent protest single

For Steve Chandra Savale of Asian Dub Foundation, his band’s spontaneous, slightly ramshackle campaign was as much about “uniting people around a vibe” as anything else. The song was written as an album track in March last year, with Lee’s routine about former Ukip leader Paul Nuttall dubbed over the top. A delayed release as a result of the pandemic offered an opportunity for a run on the singles charts. “For people with a more internationalist, unprejudiced and non-xenophobic outlook, [it’s been a] grim few years,” says Savale, “and we wanted to be able to show through song that there’s a big amount of people that don’t like the general zeitgeist being shoved down their throats.”

These days, the charts are less visible than when music mags would publish the results or Top of the Pops aired primetime performances each week. Despite their apparently waning influence, however, they offer a symbolic means of registering protest. Stewart Lee admits that there’s an element of nostalgia to entering the charts – particularly among those who grew up with shows like TOTP – but says that they still retain some emblematic significance. Others debate the impact that puncturing the singles list actually makes. “People have created their own imaginary rules about the significance of it,” says charts analyst James Masterton. “The idea is, ‘if we get to No 1, Radio 1 will have to play our song’. They won't, they're under no obligation to. Or ‘they'll have to announce it on Top of the Pops on Christmas Day’. No, that’s going to happen either.”  

But if you can make the race to No 1 a close-run thing, then you can at least count on a few news headlines to draw attention (or outrage) to your campaign. “I don't think anybody's going to necessarily switch their political allegiance based on somebody singing a song about some kind of political issue,” says Masterton, “I think what it's all about is an opportunity to raise awareness of a cause. And if nothing else, to allow people to express support for something – it does facilitate that.”  

Most of these chart campaigns would be described as a form of reactive protest, as opposed to driving at any tangible future change: Jarvis Cocker calling the Conservatives “c****”; Ugly Rumours painting Tony Blair as a warmonger; Asian Dub Foundation and Stewart Lee sending up Brexiteers as bigoted xenophobes. It’s as much about cathartic release and feeling heard as anything else.

“A lot of this is less about focusing on the long term and more about reflecting what they feel the nation feels at a specific moment in time,” says Radhika Patel, a political campaigner and organiser based in London. “I don’t think that’s necessarily wrong, I just think it’s not particularly impactful if they want to make change, because unfortunately you can’t make change by just having one single out. In some ways it’s just something funny for people to hang on to, or feel like someone understands.”  

This feeling of collective catharsis is something that Morter, Savale, and Masterton all mention too – while acknowledging that the real change-making work happens elsewhere. Morter describes it as a form of “armchair activism” but notes that many of the Facebook groups he’s created over the years live on as active communities to this day. Masterton wonders whether clicking a mouse button can ever have the same effect as taking to the streets over a particular cause.

Ultimately, these campaigns are stunts: their impact lasting not much longer than the songs themselves. There are countless pop songs that include political or social messages, and their timelessness as works of art means a cause can live on in people’s imaginations. But sometimes a simple middle finger raised at the establishment can be the right message at the right time. And with each new entrant, this peculiarly British chart tradition grows more entrenched. “It’s pretty much people sticking their proverbial finger up at whoever it’s aimed at,” says Morter. “It's a way people can get behind it and go, ‘Yeah, we're doing it too: up yours!’”

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